Mar. 01 2016

Follow the Food Truck: One Student’s Vision for Healthcare on Wheels

What if seeing your healthcare provider was as easy as grabbing lunch from your favorite taco truck? Instead of trekking to a crowded clinic, you could get basic preventive care like vaccines and health screenings at a nearby mobile health unit.

This is the vision of health mobility proposed by Executive Masters in Health Management student Cecila Gunning in her essay, “Healthcare Off the Grid: What We Can Learn From Food Truck Markets,” which won the Architects for Health’s Phil Gusack Writing Prize last year. Given by the Royal Institute of British Architects, the award recognizes a promising perspective on the architecture of health.

“I want people to think about healthcare delivery in a different way,” says Gunning. “Not as permanent buildings, but structures that can move and adapt.”

Gunning has been an architect for the past 19 years and a health architect for the last 11. She started out designing corporate spaces, but switched to healthcare buildings for a more meaningful challenge.

From her experience, hospital projects take a long time. It’s common for a new facility to be in development for over two decades. By the time the building is up, much of its technology is already obsolete. Instead, says Gunning, we should design hospitals so they can easily expand or update. A central building could serve as a docking station that health units plug into. They could look like food trucks, disconnecting when they need to connect with a neighborhood, or they could be stationary like shipping containers that are easy to unplug and upgrade.

The idea came to her during her commute in Oakland, CA.

Normally, the intersection by her train station is quiet, but when the weekend food trucks arrive, the area comes alive. Watching these mobile elements in action, she saw the community transformed. She wondered: What if one of the trucks was outfitted for healthcare rather food service? A clinic could roll into town with staff and equipment customized to meet the specific health needs of the people who live there.

The concept isn’t new. In 1949, Ian Smith founded Medical Coaches with plans to build 36 health clinics for the Cuban government, including several mobile medical units. Contemporary examples in New York City are the Community Healthcare Network’s Medical Mobile Vans that travel between Chelsea, Greenwich Village, and Jackson Heights.

Rather than a collection of independent one-offs, however, Gunning hopes health architects think about mobile treatment as part of a hospital’s design.

As an architect with SmithGroupJJR, she is back in school to integrate health, design, and medical management into one package with the goal of helping her clients plan for the future, not just the initial build. She knows that if mobility is factored into her clients’ health strategy, they might limit their costs, be equipped to advance with technology, and be in better position to reach the areas that could benefit the most from public health interventions.

“When a client comes to us now, I don’t just look at their needs as a recipe for a building,” she says. “Instead, I look at the building in the context of the community it serves.”

Gunning’s recipe for healthcare delivery is about meeting the needs of locals—with or without a side of guacamole.